One Woman Against the Crown: Elizabeth Lilburne Rides to the Rescue
Updated: Mar 30
One of the most famous and seemingly unique episodes in Oxford’s history is Queen Matilda’s daring escape from the siege of 1142, in which she allegedly crossed the frozen Thames on foot wearing a white dress as camouflage. Yet almost exactly five hundred years later, another woman also made a dangerous midwinter journey in order to affect getaway from Oxford Castle during a civil war. That woman was Elizabeth Lilburne, and although her story evidently shares many similarities with her better-known predecessor’s, one important difference remains: where Matilda was fighting to claim a throne, Elizabeth was fighting to break one.
Her journey occurred during Oxford’s brief spell as England’s capital, which had begun rather by accident. Having fled London after a disastrous falling-out with Parliament in 1642, King Charles I hoped to crush the rebels quickly and return to the nation’s traditional seat of power. His march on the metropolis fizzled out in the suburbs, however, and the Royalist armies ending up falling back on Oxford, which was a convenient nearby base and firmly under his control. The city would end up housing his majesty’s government for the next four years, as the rebellion dragged on and turned into what would later be known as the First English Civil War. In the meantime, the Cavaliers had little to show for their abortive initial campaign apart from a handful of prisoners captured during the Battle of Brentford. These included a certain Captain John Lilburne.
Before the war, Lilburne had already established a reputation as something of a firebrand, having fought vociferously for his right to print subversive literature and been whipped and jailed for his pains. The true notoriety of ‘Freeborn John’ still lay in the future, but in late 1642 that future looked likely to be short indeed. The Royalists were keen to emphasise that the Parliamentarians were treasonous criminals rather than a legitimate army, and as such planned to make an example of some of the officers they had captured. Lilburne was brought before leading judge Sir Robert Heath for an examination, during which he did not exactly help his own case. Having furiously objected to the court’s description of him as a “yeoman” rather than a gentleman, Lilburne then railed at his captors and offered to duel the celebrated Royalist commander Prince Rupert (who had defeated him at Brentford) or any two lesser men. One witness observed that “he behaved with so much impudence that it was manifest he ambitioned martyrdom for his cause”, which was perhaps not wholly wide of the mark; like many religious radicals, he had been greatly influenced by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and its description of the Protestant bishops who had been burned alive on what is now Broad Street.
Ultimately, however, John was not destined to join the Oxford Martyrs, and his captivity was ended by the flight of two women rather than a fight against two men. For the time being, the Royalist court dismissed him as a madman, and sent him back to Oxford Castle pending further judgement. The conditions inside the fortress were poor; one of his fellow prisoners (who managed to tunnel his way out and later wrote a pamphlet about his experiences) reported that “I was driven to sit all night for 3. weekes together on the bottom of the Dungeon staires, it stanke greivously, no lodging was there, but the bare ground, no house of office but the same place (in some places of it a man might have gon almost over his shooes in pisse).” The Provost Marshall in charge of the prison was especially hated by the captives, and another of them complained that “he kept [Lilburne] in Irons 19. or 18. daies and since he being very sick, even to death yet would not permit any woman to come to look to him in his sicknes.” Nonetheless, Lilburne did manage to make contact with one woman – a Mistress Primrose, who was visiting her imprisoned husband – for long enough to give her a letter which she smuggled back to London. The recipient was Lilburne’s own wife.
Elizabeth Dewell must have known that John was a troublemaker when she married him in 1641, since by that point he had already finished his first spell in prison. As a committed Protestant radical herself, she was supportive of his endeavours, though her subsequent pregnancy made it harder to be an activist for his cause. Unfortunately, that was what the circumstances now demanded. John’s message revealed that the Royalists were planning fresh proceedings against him and two other captive officers, who were to be tried for high treason on the 20th of December 1642 – just a week after the letter had been sent – and then executed. He had evidently put aside any hankerings for martyrdom, since his new plan was for Parliament to intervene by threatening to apply the Biblical Lex Talionis: the law of ‘an eye for an eye’. Elizabeth now put this plan into action, laying a one-woman siege to Westminster with petitions and pleas for aid. Her persistence paid off. On the 17th, the rebel legislature issued a proclamation in support of John and his comrades, warning that “if the said Persons before-named, or any of them, or any other, shall be put to Death, or other Hurt or Violence offered to their or any of their Persons” then “the like Punishment shall be inflicted by Death or otherwise upon such Prisoners as have been or shall be taken by the Forces raised by both Houses of Parliament.”
This policy of bloody reprisal was a grim one, but in the long run it helped to limit the violence of the civil war; the king was unwilling to see his loyal servants executed, and was forced thereafter to treat captured Parliamentarians as prisoners of war rather than as felons. In the short term, however, one glaring problem remained for the Lilburnes. Parliament’s threat meant nothing until the Royalists at Oxford were made aware of it, and John’s trial was only days away. With this in mind, Elizabeth resolved to ride to the city herself and deliver news of the ultimatum. To make this high-speed journey in the middle of winter while several months pregnant would have been risky enough in normal circumstances, let alone during the chaotic first months of a civil war when it entailed travelling behind enemy lines. Yet make it she did, and just in time. On receiving notice of the Lex Talionis declaration, the Cavaliers abandoned their plans to make a fatal example of Lilburne, and he was released in a prisoner exchange a few months later. Elizabeth had saved his life (along with that of several men on both sides who might otherwise have gone to the gallows), a fact he gratefully acknowledged later.
Yet the struggle for the realm’s future was not over, and John’s gratitude was just one of many things that would not survive it. His prominence as an agitator only grew, and MPs may well have come to regret their part in his rescue; as the decade wore on and the Parliamentarian coalition splintered, Lilburne established himself as the leading propagandist within the Leveller movement for revolutionary change. The ambitious radicalism of the Leveller programme – which advocated popular sovereignty, a sweeping expansion of the electoral franchise, and the dismantling of the established Church – alarmed moderates who wanted to negotiate a compromise with the defeated king. It also secured a lasting appeal among dissident politicians of various stripes; in recent times, the Levellers have been hailed as heroes by both Jeremy Corbyn (who called Lilburne his greatest historical icon) and arch-Brexiteer Douglas Carswell.
‘Freeborn John’ was undeniably a brave and principled man, and it is hard not to admire his tireless commitment to justice. Nonetheless, his all-consuming activism had a human cost, and a fair portion of that was borne by his wife and children. Elizabeth was a campaigner in her own right and shared in many of her husband’s dangers, suffering imprisonment alongside him in 1645 when he antagonised Parliament, and a further arrest in 1647 for distributing his works whilst he was once again in jail. Even this was not enough to save her from his confrontational nature, however; not for nothing was it said of him that if he were the only man left in the world, then John would quarrel with Lilburne and Lilburne with John. Determined to present himself as the epitome of unwavering manly resolve, in his later publications he turned against Elizabeth and contrasted his own fortitude with the weakness of “my poor credulous wife” who begged him to bargain with Cromwell’s republican regime and accept “such sneaking terms as my soul abhorres”.
Publicly sacrificing Elizabeth to his rhetorical strategy did not suffice to save the Leveller movement, which faded rapidly away in the 1650s. It is therefore tempting to conclude that her tactful approach might have borne greater fruit, just as back in 1642 her diplomacy had accomplished more than his macho trial performance. In any case, although the Levellers were defeated and the monarchy rose again, they will always retain a following for as long as their most famous slogan – “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” – still strikes a chord in our divided nation. Nonetheless, when we consider Elizabeth Lilburne’s contributions to her cause, we have redoubled reason to insist that the interests of the “poorest she” are equally worthy of remembrance.
Written by Louis Morris
 Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography of John Lilburne (Harrap 1961) p. 102. The taste for fighting one’s accusers seems to have run in the family, as his father had reportedly been the last man in England to demand a formal trial by combat.
 Edward Wirley, The prisoners report: or, A true relation of the cruell usage of the prisoners in Oxford […] (1643).
 Edmund Chillenden, The inhumanity of the Kings prison-keeper at Oxford […] (1643) p. 10.
 A Declaration of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, Die Sabbati, Dec. 17. 1642. touching Lilburn and other Prisoners, threatning Lex Talionis, reproduced in https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol5/pp77-102.
 Gregg, Free-Born John, p. 103.
 Edward Vallance, ‘The Rebirth of the Levellers’ in The Guardian, 20th August 2015.
 Ann Hughes, ‘Lilburne [née Dewell], Elizabeth (fl. 1641–1660), Leveller’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23rd September 2004; see also idem, Gender and the English Revolution (Taylor and Francis 2011) p. 99-100.
 This slogan was originally part of a speech made by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough during the Putney Debates of 28th – 29th October 1647.